Getting Up Again

I reached a milestone yesterday: I finished a novel.

Let me explain. Yes, if you look on the sidebar, you’ll see I have novels for sale. And yes, they are finished novels. So what’s the big deal?

A little something called a slump. Or writer’s block. Take your choice.

A few years back, as I was writing my fourth novel about Lyle Villines (part of the Rural Empires setting with a working title of Hillbilly Hunt), I was shopping the novel Startup around to agents in New York. One of the submissions was to Aaron Priest, who rejected it, but didn’t send me a form rejection. He said that he loved the writing, but didn’t feel like anything happened for about the first one hundred pages.

Knowing it was against etiquette, I wrote back, asking if he would take another look (all while pointing out I knew it was against etiquette) if I rewrote that first part. The answer came from an assistant, who said she would read the rewrite, and if she judged it good enough, she’d forward it to Mr. Priest.

Fair enough. More than fair, in fact.

Long story short, I was rejected again. And I could see no way around it.

Now, to be fair, Mr. Priest did point out, in his original rejection notice, that this was his opinion only and another agent might well pick it up.

But I had stars in my eyes. Aaron Priest is Robert Crais’s agent—and Robert Crais is one of my favorite authors. Who wouldn’t want to share an agent with one of your heros?

The second rejection did something to me, and in the ensuing years, writing has been hard to do. I know it’s mental, that I need to find a way around it. Add to that the fact the novel I finished is a mystery—my first—and that compounded everything. I’ve never written a mystery, and they require some finesse. You don’t want to give it away, but you don’t want it to be impossible for the reader to solve, either. It’s a fine line you have to walk.

I kept getting closer and closer, but I’d write a passage or two, then stop for months (or longer) before I went back to it. I had to drag the last quarter or more of the novel out kicking and screaming.

Then, last week, my mentor died. I wrote about him in my last post. I won’t revisit all that, but I will say this: when Dusty Richards died, he’d written over 160 novels.

Let that sink in for a minute. One hundred and sixty.

Dusty’s philosophy? Keep writing.

No matter what happens in your life, keep writing. You’re a writer, so write. It’s that simple. He cranked out three or four books a year that way. Yes, they were westerns and some of them were short. But not all of them. Not by any means.

His dying changed something in me, something more than what happens when you lose someone who means that much to you. I realized that all the people Dusty had ever encouraged to keep writing were his legacy. And that most definitely included me.

I had to make him proud of the time he’d invested in me and others. Yes, many of them no doubt gave up. Make no mistake, this is a tough business, and you have to grow a thick skin. You’ll see far more rejection than you will acceptance.

But, as Dusty admonished so many budding writers, keep writing. Why? Because it’s your dream. Not everyone is cut out for this. Heck, not everyone who writes should be doing it. Let’s be honest here. But many, possibly most, are. And even those who can’t write very well yet will improve if they fall in with the right people, people who give them constructive criticism and encouragement.

And above all, keep writing.

Chances are, if you keep at it, you’ll run into a situation similar to mine, where you hit a wall and have trouble putting words on paper. Maybe life interferes. Maybe you get sent to Eastern Europe to spy on the Russians (if you do, mine that shit for stories). Maybe you have your first child. Maybe someone important to you dies. Maybe the rejection notices keep piling up and you wonder if it’s worth it to keep doing this.

Whatever the cause, for some reason, you can’t write. It doesn’t happen to everyone, but it happens to enough of us that there are endless articles about it and methods to deal with it.
The simplest solution is to do as Dusty told so many of us.

Keep writing.

I don’t care if it’s recipes, or crap you delete the next day, a frown of disgust on your face. And maybe you do it again the next day. And the next. And the next.

The point is, you’re doing something creative, and eventually it’ll turn into something you read, then nod to yourself and think, I’m keeping this.

It has taken me two, maybe three years to finish Animal Sacrifice, despite knowing, in general, how it was supposed to end (if your read this blog regularly, you’ll know I’m what’s called a pantser—I don’t outline my novels). I wrote some other things in between. I have a couple other novels started, and I managed to crank out a few short stories to keep the creative juices flowing at least to an extent.

But Animal Sacrifice sat there in its file, mocking me, it seemed. I knew what needed to happen, but getting the words out was all but impossible.

And yet, I kept writing.


Well, I have four finished novels prior to this. That’s proof I can do it. And it means I can do it more than once. Plus, I believe in this story, think it’s a good one, and it needs to see the light of day. Yes, there will be rewrites to turn it into a real mystery a toddler can’t solve in the first twenty pages, but the straight-line story is there, and it’s a good one. I say that without ego.

But I also saw my mentors, Dusty and Velda Brotherton—the two who started the writing group I’m a member of—turning out books, no matter what went on in their lives. Dusty spent a month in the hospital with pneumonia last spring.

He kept writing once he was out.

Velda has lost her husband, and her health has put her in a wheelchair.

She keeps writing.

That’s inspiration, folks. That’s drive.

That’s what we need to emulate.

I finished my novel, regardless of how hard it was to write. So go out there and finish yours, and finish the one after that, and the one after that, ad infinitum.
Keep writing.


The Passing of a Legend

I’ve been quiet over the holidays for a couple of reasons. Partly, because it was the holidays. But mostly… well, you’ll see.

About ten years ago, I walked into a writers group in Fayetteville, Arkansas. I was ready to get serious about the writing, ready to improve my craft. I can’t remember now how I heard about this particular group, at least not this time. I’d heard of it once before from a friend, but I guess I wasn’t ready for it yet, wasn’t ready to let strangers see my work.

But by then I was. I’d worked on a space opera, had written quite a bit of it, and wanted to see what others thought. I was arrogant and timid all at the same time. Part of me thought I was gonna knock em dead—that audacious part that every writer has to possess to have the courage to put his words out there for somebody. But the majority of me just hoped I would be up to snuff.

I knew no one there. I sat at one end of the group of tables in a room they used in the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church. A member of that church was also a member of the workshop, and that’s how they had access to this building.

I had no idea how fortunate I was to happen on this group. The two who ran it, Dusty Richards and Velda Brotherton, had been published in New York, Velda years ago under a pen name just before the bottom fell out, and Dusty under his own name, writing westerns.

I’d known of Dusty since I was a teenager. I’d worked an FFA rodeo once in I think it was tenth grade, and Dusty was the announcer. He was a local celebrity even then, appearing on a regional morning show, doing the farm report. He’d been a biology teacher at my alma mater, Huntsville High School, as well as a field man for Tyson, traveling around to the chicken farms, helping them raise better chickens.

Over the next decade—or close to it—I stayed faithful in that writers group, and I came to know Dusty more. He became a mentor, a friend, a father figure, especially after my own father died. Time after time, I watched him encourage new writers, and he always told them the same thing: It’s good. There are problems, but don’t worry about that. Just write. Get the story out. You can fix it later.

There were times when I wondered how he could do that, because I thought some of them were horrible writers. But Dusty never said that, never discouraged a single one of them, regardless of their quality. I think perhaps he could see something the rest of us—or at least that I—couldn’t see: the potential of every writer to become more than they were when they walked into the group.

I watched a lot of writers come and go, and Dusty never failed to encourage them. He had a heart, as my boss Casey Cowan says, bigger than the western skies he wrote about. He was generous to a fault, and optimistic like few people I’ve known. To once again steal from Casey, Dusty woke up every day thinking of it as a new opportunity.

On December 19, Dusty and his wife Pat were on their way home from a lunch meeting with Casey and the Oghma business manager, Venessa Cerasale, when he apparently passed out and left the road. He crossed oncoming traffic—luckily not hitting anyone else, and, in one of life’s ironies, the Ranch Boss—as we affectionately called him—crashed through the fence of a horse pen.

I’ll spare you the medical details, but suffice it to say he and Pat lingered a time longer, and even looked to be improving briefly.

Then came the news that Pat had died.

To say we were shocked is an understatement. Pat was Dusty’s rock. As loud and boisterous as he could be, she was the only one who could control him, the only one who could rein him in. She was a quiet influence in his life, his bride of fifty-six years. While he was the center of attention, Pat would sit off to the side, reading her romance novels, the only kind I ever saw in her hands. Bodice rippers, as they’re known. She loved them, but I never really heard her talk about them.

Pat died January 10th. Dusty followed her on the 18th. Immediately after the wreck, he was in a coma, and once he woke up, he sometimes knew himself, sometimes didn’t. But, as another friend of mine said, I believe his spirit knew Pat was gone. Two days later, he was moved into hospice care, and we all knew it was a matter of time.

That’s Dusty’s story. But there’s more.

As I mentioned above, Dusty became so much more than that guy at the writers group for me. I had the honor of riding to Cheyenne, Wyoming in June of 2016 with him for the annual Western Writers of American convention. I drove him to hospital when Pat had to go a couple days before we were due to leave. She stayed Friday night, Saturday, and into Sunday morning. We left Cheyenne, made it to Hayes, Kansas, where she had to go back in the hospital. This time, they found the real problem, and she was able to continue home the next day.

But while we sat in the waiting room at Cheyenne, Dusty leaned over and said, “Gil, I hear you’re having money problems.” I was. I worked part-time then, twenty-four hours a week at nine dollars an hour, two twelve-hour shifts on the weekend. I was effectively giving up an entire week’s paycheck to go to the conference, but was determined I wouldn’t miss it.

I explained this to Dusty. He pulled out his wallet, handed me one hundred dollars.

“You take this,” he said. “Use it for whatever you need. Don’t worry about paying me back for it.”

And then, not two months later, he had me meet him at Best Buy and bought me a laptop when he saw I had no way to write if I wasn’t at home. On the way out of the store, he said, “Me and Pat talked about it, and we decided you needed to have that to help you write.”

I tell this as a way to show you how generous, how giving, this man was. He gave, and didn’t ask for anything in return.

After the accident, when we posted news of the wreck on the Oghma Facebook page, I happened to go there to look at another post and saw that one. Over seven hundred comments, and I’m told there were thousands of views. I’d known Dusty was a celebrity, but I had no idea he was that well known. I scrolled through the posts, and comment after comment had to do with how generous he and Pat were, how they’d helped this person or that one in some way or another. One even posted that her family wouldn’t have their farm if not for Dusty and Pat.

It’s been a hard few weeks. I think the conferences will be a lot different without Dusty and his loud laugh. There’ll be something missing from them. But his legacy will live on. We intend to see to that, finding a way to give back to this man who gave so much to so many, a way to keep his generous legacy going.

In the spirit of that audaciousness I first exhibited by going to that writing group, I’m going to do my best to step into Dusty’s shoes and encourage new writers, do my best to help them set their feet on the path he helped so many travel, including me.

Knowing Dusty Richards was an honor, one I didn’t fully realize until this happened. I don’t know if I can ever approach his generosity, his optimism, but I’ll do my best and try, because he had faith in me, believed I was a good writer. I will cherish every memory I have of him, and every time I help a writer, it’ll be in his name, for his legacy. Not mine.

The Ranch Boss is gone. A legend has passed from this earth, a legend I had the distinct honor to know. I believe we all go to whatever we envision to be heaven, and I’m sure Dusty is sitting around a prairie campfire somewhere, spinning tales as he always did, conversing with his hero Zane Grey, and I’m sure people like Luke Short, Max Brand, Louis L’Amour, and who knows who else, are sitting around that campfire, each taking his turn, telling tales to one another the likes of which we’ll never know. At least not until we join them.

Adios, my friend. You had a long ride, and a good one. I’ll miss you, and so will so many more. My heart is heavy, even though I know you’d want me to smile. The pain is sharp now, but it’ll fade, and I’ll be left with so many good memories.

And I’ll tell the stories like you did, passing them along to a new generation of writers, so they’ll know what kind of man you were.

My friend. My mentor. My second father.

Hold a spot for me at that campfire. I want to hear more stories.


Snow in Africa?

This post really should have gone up before Christmas, but… well, you know. It’s Christmas. Still, I think this is close enough for it to remain topical.

Like everywhere else in the country, the radio stations around here play Christmas music starting at least right after Thanksgiving, good in some cases, not so good in others (one, which shall remain nameless, goes wall-to-wall, twenty-four-hour with holiday cheer. I avoid it like the plague). The station I’ve been listening to the most plays classic hits, so naturally, one of those songs during this season is “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” by Band-Aid, the charity supergroup.

I remember when this song came out—as well as the response song, “We’re Stars” by Hear-N-Aid, the heavy metal charity song organized by Ronnie James Dio—and thought it was okay. I mean, I was into metal at the time, so anything that smacked of pop music was too commercial, even if it was put together by Bob Geldof.

To show you just how much attention I really paid to the song, it’s been out since 1984, and this year is the first time I’ve really listened to what the lyrics say. Most of it is fine, but there’s a passage in there about how there won’t be snow in Africa this year, implying it’s such a truly sad thing, and that means the Ethiopians—the famine there is why the song was released in the first place—are to be pitied that much more. Because it won’t snow. In Africa.

Look, I get it. Africa has its problems. Has had for who knows how long, and probably will for who knows how long. And there’s the idea we’re supposed to help our fellow man. All well and good.

But please, don’t insult my intelligence (which must have been at an especially low ebb, considering how long it took me to pick up on this particular passage) while you’re doing it. I mean, I guess we’re all aware that the pictures we see of starving kids are culled from the way starving kids really look. Evidently, someone somewhere in some marketing department said, “Yeah, that one there? The one that has flies in its eyes and the skinny arms and big belly? He looks too pathetic. Now that one, the one who can still stand up? Use that one. It’ll elicit more sympathy.”

But wanting me to feel sorry for Africans because it won’t snow there? First of all, they should count their blessings. I hate snow and ice. But that’s just a personal thing. Let’s look at reality a bit, shall we?

It’s Africa. As far as I know, with the possible exception of the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, it doesn’t snow in Africa anyway! And since the song is aimed at Ethiopia, a country that sits close to the equator, it’s near enough to the Southern Hemisphere it’s damn near summer in December at any rate.

Yes, I’m poking fun. A quick Google search reveals that it apparently does snow in parts of Ethiopia, so I’m kind off-point here, but I’m honest enough to admit it. Even so, when you picture Africa, do you picture snow? As I thought about this, I thought it might be more common for it to snow in South Africa, but I doubt snow is commonplace on the continent at large, so my dig at the song still applies, in my mind. After all, they’re addressing Africa itself in that particular lyric, right?

The main thing here, folks, is that it’s Christmas—or was yesterday—and we need to lighten up, whether we celebrate this holiday for the religious day it was for so many years (and don’t bombard me with emails/comments about the Catholic Church stealing Yule and all that; I’m well aware of it), or for the commercial fiasco it’s become—or somewhere in between—the point is, maybe for one day a year, or one week, or even one month, maybe we can let go of all the Trump-gay-conservative-liberal-whatever bashing and bash something that really doesn’t matter.

Like a song that plays on our sympathies by pointing out it won’t snow on a country that isn’t necessarily known for getting snow. A song that’s over thirty years old. A majority of whose performers are retired or dead. Or both.

In other words, lighten up, Francis.

And have a wonderful New Year.


The 37th Parallel

It’s been some time since I’ve done a book review, and I’m not sure if I’ll make a habit of it or not. Book reviews, on the whole, are supposed to be boring for blog posts, the sign of a blogger who’s running out of material, or at least having trouble coming up with a post for that week (or whatever frequency the blogger blogs).

But, really, this is not exactly your normal book review, because my thoughts on this book are so… jumbled.

To preamble, I’ve been interested in weird phenomenon since I was very young. On some matters, I’ve made up my mind due to personal experiences (and they’re private, thank you very much. You want titillation, go watch The X-Files. Or Jerry Springer). On others… well, I’m still not sure.

One of those areas is UFOs.

Do they exist? Most certainly. Are they alien spacecraft piloted by Little Grey Men? I have no idea. And what about the black helicopters or Men In Black that are increasingly associated with UFOs? Again, no idea.

I do believe most UFO sightings are simply mistakes of one kind or another. I mean, like the joke goes, the surest sign that there’s intelligent life in the universe is that they’re not trying to contact us.

But seriously. I’ve had some experiences where, for a moment, I thought I saw something, only to realize it was a reflection, or a plane viewed at an odd angle, or something similar to that. You sorta have to train yourself not to see UFOs in order to see them, if you get my meaning. Otherwise, everything turns into a UFO—an Unidentified Flying Object—in its most basic definition: a flying object you can’t identify.

The catch here is that I’m not trained. There are, however, enough reports from many professionals who are trained in dispassionate observation to tell me something is going on, at least enough of a something to warrant a bit more scientific study, not just a two-year report from the Air Force as a token effort.

After all, how much do we trust the government?

All of this is by way of saying I still dip my toe into reading books about UFOs, and I recently finished one titled The 37th Parallel: The Secret Truth Behind America’s UFO Highway by Ben Mezrich.

Mr. Mezrich is the author of such books as The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal (basis for the movie The Social Network), and Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions, which I think are fairly self-explanatory titles. Needless to say, after subjects like this, taking on UFOs is a bit out of character, at least to me.

That’s what made me want to read The 37th Parallel.

In the main, it’s the story of one Chuck Zukowski, who has been obsessed with UFOs since his teens (sound familiar?). He’s an independent investigator, though he nominally belongs to MUFON—the Mutual UFO Network—but he doesn’t fully trust them. According to the book—and I think I’d read this before—there are many within the UFO community who believe MUFON to be a front for the CIA, or other entities, and that even though the mom-and-pop members are good people, those at the top are monitoring everyone in the organization for… something. What that something is, isn’t clear. Probably changes depending on who you’re talking to. And if they’re off their meds that week.

But I digress.

Mr. Zukowski’s story, on the whole, is interesting, and there are signs he’s onto something someone doesn’t want him to be onto: black SUVs (though no black helicopters, at least not after him personally), as well as getting fired from his reserve sheriff deputy’s job—for which he received no pay—for “contradicting the department” on a case involving livestock mutilation.

Oh, yeah. Forgot to mention that, didn’t I?

A lot of the book is concerned with livestock mutilation and Mr. Zukowski’s investigations of same. If you’re not familiar with it, livestock mutilation has been going on for years, and it’s every bit as mysterious as the UFOs with which it is sometimes associated. Basically, animals are found that have had organs surgically removed along with all the blood drained from the bodies. And any living animals who still happen to be nearby are totally freaked out, in a lot of these cases.

As with UFOs, there are a lot of theories surrounding livestock mutilation, none of which have been proven. Sometimes, there are what are termed surface anomalies linked to the mutilations—circular areas on the ground that look as if a craft of some kind landed there. Thing is, there are never any tracks or signs of any kind around the animals. It’s as if they were picked up, operated on, then dumped afterwards.

Mr. Zukowski reminds me of Richard Dreyfuss’s character in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He’s obsessed by this stuff to the point of moving his family from California to Colorado in order to be closer to the scenes so he can investigate them sooner. In other words, get there while the bodies are still fresh.

All well and good, except he reaches a point where he’s freelancing his day job—he designs microchips—and his wife, who is a skeptic of all this, is working two jobs to meet their financial obligations. She thinks he’s crazy, while at the same time she believes in him. Just means she’s human.

All of this is well and good. Mr. Mezrich uses creative nonfiction to tell the story, which means that, while it’s all fact, it reads more like a novel. The author spent a year with Mr. Zukowski and his wife, which no doubt gave him the detail he needed to turn this from a potentially dry recitation of facts—such as they are—to something that’ll hold your interest.

Or, at least, it did mine.

Mr. Mezrich touches on several related subjects throughout the course of the book, starting with the Roswell crash of 1947 and all the controversy surrounding it. But it’s his somewhat hazy ending that has me in a jumble.

Remember that title, that one that included telling us the secret truth behind America’s UFO highway?

Spoiler alert: not so much.

Not to me, at any rate.

Maybe I missed something. I don’t know. But—again, spoiler alert—the whole aim of the subtitle isn’t really reached until literally the last few pages. And, despite the encounters with black SUVs and even a close encounter with one of the drivers who informed Mr. Zukowski that he wasn’t really a threat of any kind, I didn’t really see any secrets revealed—unless it’s that the mutilations, along with the locations of most major military bases and American Indian holy sites, are roughly centered along the 37th parallel.

I’ll admit this is a curious fact, and yet another aspect of all this that should be looked into. But the title made me feel as if I’d learn far more about this UFO highway than I really did. I mean, the freaking cover told me that, for crying out loud. And the copy on the back cover even implies that Mr. Mezrich himself felt for his safety as he researched this book—and yet I found nothing of the kind inside.

Granted, publishers go for hype. It’s how they get us to first pick up a book and then, hopefully, buy it. I get that. But this… well, I felt as though I’d been the subject of clickbait.

And if that’s what’s in store for us as the future of publishing unveils itself, you can be assured I’ll pick my books much more carefully. I’m just glad I checked this one out of the library.


The Two Sides of Nostalgia

I’ve talked about nostalgia on here before. At my age, I suppose it’s a fact of life. At some point—I’m not sure exactly when, and I’m sure it varies—a person realizes there are fond memories of youth you’ll never get to relive, except in your mind.

But nostalgia can be a two-edged sword. I’m sure all of us have had the experience of trying to enjoy something from our past only to wonder what in the world we saw in it. One of those items for me is the series The Dukes of Hazzard, a show I watched avidly as a young teen, though interest in it waned as I grew older—and as the show began to outlive its original creativeness. I don’t think I watched hardly any episodes after John Schneider and Tom Wopat—Bo and Luke Duke, respectively—briefly left the show to be replaced by their cousins… who also happened to have blond and brown hair. I can’t even remember the cousins’ names, which is probably just as well.

But, sometimes things do feel the same. I had both experiences recently and, lacking much else to talk about, thought I’d subject you to stuff you probably don’t care about.

Way back longer ago than even the Dukes, a movie came out called The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams, starring Dan Haggerty in the title role. Mr. Haggerty—according to what I found about him on Wikipedia—led quite an exciting life, being an animal wrangler for many movies. Like the character he played in the movie—and the later TV series—he had a way with animals.

My wife and I recently checked Season One of the series out from the library and managed to get through the pilot episode. I remember the series fondly, but the reality didn’t quite stack up against those memories. I’d love to find the movie, but it apparently is unavailable.

The series—inspired, no doubt, by the popularity of the movie—lasted only two seasons. The pilot episode was fairly unexciting, and there were plot holes in it a mile wide. For instance, unlike the real Grizzly Adams, the TV version wouldn’t eat animals—which left one wondering just exactly what it was he lived on up in those mountains. Sure, there are plants to eat, but the winters are long, and I’m not sure how he could get by without dying of malnutrition.

And what about Mad Jack, the character played by Denver Pyle (incidentally enough, the actor who later played Uncle Jesse on The Dukes of Hazzard)? What, exactly, did he do? He visits Grizzly on a regular basis, always griping at and threatening the mule he called Old Number 7—because that was his seventh mule, presumably—a pack animal he never rode, and whose character evidently existed solely to bring supplies from down below to Grizzly—and provide some comic relief.

And where did Jack get those supplies, anyway? If the show were historically accurate, the man would had to have traveled all the way across the Great Plains to Saint Louis, a journey of about three months, if I recall correctly.

Despite all this—which didn’t bother me when I was a kid, of course—there were still some things about the show I liked. My dad took me to see the movie at the old Madison Theater (which I talk about elsewhere on this blog) when it came out, and it was the only time my dad ever took me to anything like that. He wasn’t big on going to movies, so even though I remember no real details, the event itself is burned into my mind, lo more than forty years later.

On top of that, the movie—and later the series—started my fascination with mountain men. It’s probably my favorite era of the expansion into the Old West, a brief period when men ventured into the mountains in search of beaver pelts to sell to the fur companies. Beaver was exceedingly popular back East and in Europe, and the mountain men and fur companies catered to that demand. Of course, there were only one or two fur companies to sell to, so the mountain men pretty much got fleeced every year at rendezvous, but they must have figured it was worth it to go for a year without seeing very many other people. When the public decided to move on from beaver to something else in the mid-1830s, many of the mountain men stayed on, eking out a living as best they could, while others came down out of the hills to serve as guides for rich hunters or the military in the latter’s growing war against the Indians.

Watching The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams made me fall in love with the mountains. The scenery in those shows is spectacular, even if the plots were less than stellar. I spent all my youth in love with places I’ve yet to see, and I still have enough fondness for them that I long to visit them yet.

That love was only enhanced later when I saw movies like Jeremiah Johnson and The Mountain Men, and even the recent movie The Revenant.

So, the results of indulging in that nostalgia were a bit mixed.

On the other hand, Saturday I got a much-needed haircut. The place I go is a hair academy, where students cut your hair. They’re supervised, and I’ve never had a bad experience, but as I waited, I looked up at the whiteboard where they post their specials, and someone had drawn a snowman and evergreen trees, along with falling snow, on the board to accompany the weekly special. I don’t remember what the special was—it wasn’t something I would want—but I remember that picture, because it reminded me so much of the Christmas cards that used to fascinate me when I was a kid.

I can’t tell you exactly what it was that enraptured me of these cards, but I’ve always been a sucker for good artwork. Most of the cards my family received during the seventies were very atmospheric—sleighs, snow-laden trees, houses covered with snow, their windows glowing buttery yellow with warm light. Some had actual glitter on them to make them sparkle, and I can still remember their rough texture under my fingers. Wreaths adorned them, and so did Santa in hundreds of poses—though usually laughing, sometimes with kids around him, sometimes standing in a room lit only by flames in the fireplace as he ate milk and cookies left out by the more thoughtful families.

And, of course, Christmas trees, clad in lights, ornaments, and garland, a large star on top, brightly wrapped presents around its feet—who could forget that?

All of this and more I saw in this simple yet elegant drawing on the whiteboard, and it brought a smile to my face. I can’t go back to those times—alas—but I can cherish them in my head. There was magic on those cards, and, to me, that magic isn’t there on modern cards. The subject matter seems to have changed, maybe gotten more generic or more politically correct, I’m not sure, but they don’t have that same allure they did to me as a child.

Probably because I’m a jaded adult now and, let’s face it, Christmas really is for the little ones—what my wife fondly calls tiny humans.

I hope you have a Merry Christmas, full of joy and love…

And more than a touch of magic.


As a human being, seeing all these sexual assault cases in the news lately is… disheartening to say the least.

C’mon, guys, how hard is it to keep yourself to yourself? I mean, you literally have to do nothing in order to avoid being one of these creeps.

And they’re guys we’re supposed to be able to trust. Look at Bill Cosby. I’m not gonna go into the arguments about whether or not he’s really guilty—that’s a moot point by now. The image he projected is tarnished, and that’s a damn shame, because I was a fan of his. I still think he’s one of the funniest comics out there. His talent for taking everyday things and showing them to us in a slightly different way to make them funny (think of his brain damage routine when it comes to kids, or the quip about men doing a lot of work to avoid working) was practically off the charts.

Who knew he had this dark side?

I certainly never suspected.

And that’s part of the problem. I mean, look at most of these guys: they look and act respectable in public. But get them in private with someone who’s maybe star-struck to be in their presence, and they take advantage of that power and abuse it.

Really? You couldn’t maybe, I don’t know, be a positive influence for them?! Why is it you’d rather be a horrible memory than a cherished one? W.T.F. Is. Wrong. With. You?

I’ve never understood that mindset. Yes, I’ve looked at women and said, “Whoa.” I’m human, and I’m not perfect. But the true differences show immediately: I don’t act on what I think (which is appreciation, not mentally raping them) and never have, and the thought of molesting a woman in any way doesn’t enter my mind. More to the point, if I were to see a man doing such a thing—not likely since 1) I don’t associate with men who would do such a thing, and 2), these degenerates generally don’t do this kind of thing in front of other people—I would do something about it.

I say all this to make it manifestly clear that I don’t defend these creeps in any way, and that I am… I don’t even know a strong enough word to convey my feelings.

But here’s the thing: human nature being what it is, I fear witch hunts. History has multiple examples of this happening, from the real Salem witch hunts (as an example) to the House Un-American Activities Committee and who knows how many others.

Let’s take the latest (as I write this and am not looking at Facebook) example: Matt Lauer. Newscaster for NBC. Trusted talking head to many. Exposed for sexual misconduct. Looks like a clean, respectable guy, regardless of whether you agree with his politics or not (I have no idea what they are, so don’t ask).

Cue the usual chain of events: Accusers come forward. There’s outrage on Facebook. Lauer is convicted in absentia before the news has reached all the corners of the earth.

Do you see what’s happening there? And not just with Lauer. There’s Roy Moore. Al Franken. And, unfortunately, so many more. In each case, even if they’re not convicted in the media (who are always careful to add the word alleged to their headlines), they are on FB so quick it spins your head. Kessel Run in twelve parsecs, anyone?

No, it’s not funny. None of this is. As I took great pains to point out, I have no mercy for these guys—if they’re convicted. But to convict them before they get to court… well, that way lies lynch mobs and vigilante justice. Something we always have to guard against, for sure.

But here’s the thing: to continue with my example, let’s say the Matt Lauer thing goes to court, and it’s clearly shown he was innocent. What then? His reputation is already besmirched because we’ve convicted him in the People’s Court of Social Media. He can’t get a job doing anything remotely like he was doing when NBC fired him sight unseen. Because the People’s Court of Social Media never closes. It’s open 24/7, and there’s no lack of people out there who will disbelieve any amount of evidence they’re shown (witness Flat Earthers, if you doubt).

Innocent until proven guilty is one of the most important cornerstones of our judicial system. Yes, I know the government is just as guilty of breaking this standard as anyone. But maybe it’s time we reminded them of the standards and stood up to that kind of behavior.

This great American experiment will never be perfect, and we need to stop expecting it to be. The idea behind our system is if you don’t like the way something is done, change it. That’s how we abolished slavery, despite it initially being an intrinsic part of our economy. People stood up and said, “Hey, we’ll do without some luxuries to give these people their rights.” And they were correct to do so.

That’s the power of a Constitutional Republic versus a Democracy. We are supposed to be the former. If you study the history of the Abolition, you’ll see that one of the factors influencing the abolishment of slavery was the jury trial: jurists refused to convict runaway slaves despite it being the law of the land that they should do so. Notice I said jurists, not judges. Judges are not supposed to legislate from the bench. They are supposed to be independent, objective referees. In our system, though, members of the jury have the right to refuse to convict if they see the crime as being immoral.

A modern example of this would be some poor sap who’s been convicted for possessing a dime bag of pot. Exonerate him, make more room for these predators preying on women and scarring them for life. They’ll get really special treatment when they get inside.

Look, I will never advocate for light sentences for these guys. Violating a woman’s right to her own body… no words for how wrong that is. I have a wife and a daughter, and the thought of anyone doing that to either of them—or to any other woman I know or don’t know—is repugnant. I don’t get why someone would want to be that way, but that’s why I write crime fiction—to attempt to understand these people (though I probably will skip these guys).

But neither will I condone kangaroo courts or lynch mobs, and neither should you. Because the next person could be you.


A World Without What?

I subscribe to Shelf Awareness, an online book review site (best way I know to describe it) that sends out emails twice a week informing you of select new books. I always look at this email, and I’ve discovered several new and interesting books this way. Generally, I’ll jump from the email to my local library’s site to see if they have a copy of a book that looks interesting. If they do, I’ll request it.

This week, they reviewed a book called A World Without Whom by Emmy J. Favilla, who is the Buzzfeed Copy Chief (my strikethrough is an attempt to mirror the book, which has a graphic of the editor’s strikeout mark there). Not only does Shelf Awareness review the book, they also interview Emmy about why she wrote the book.

At first reading, I was somewhat supportive of what she says. After all, we don’t want to get stuck in the past. Language is an evolving, living thing, even more so in this age of Internet slang such as LOL and so forth. And let’s not forget the way we used to have to text.


Yes, there’s a but. Of course there is.

I posted a link to that interview to my publishing company’s, er, company chat on Messenger, thinking it would get a few comments.

Instead, I practically stirred up a hornets’ nest, and it wasn’t favorable to Emmy’s opinions.

Which is good.

To be fair, I only gave the interview—and book review—a cursory read at first. As an editor, I’m always looking to see if I can learn anything from other editors. But this one, on the surface, didn’t seem to have much to offer. After a bit deeper read of the interview, I reserved a copy at the library—I doubt the book is worth buying no matter what, especially on my budget—just to see what it was all about. And I still intend to at least skim it. To quote my wife, you need to know your enemy.

Basically, Ms. Favilla says that, as editors in this modern age, we should feel free to pretty much ignore what we were taught—or, in her words, “…feel a sense of relief and freedom from the sort of rules that have been ingrained in us since grammar school”—and just go with what your heart tells you.

More telling is this quote: “It’s really more important to ruminate on stuff like ‘Is this an exclusive way to talk about all genders?’ than ‘Does this comma go here?’”

In other words, politically correct editing.

Again, to be fair, she does say: “But there are certain ways in which I’m still a bit of a stickler: I don’t think we should totally ignore conventions about grammar, punctuation, spelling and other things that make it easier for readers to understand a piece of writing.”

So what exactly are you saying, Ms. Favilla? Because what I’m reading sounds contradictory at the very least. Or, as one of the comments on our chats stated: Anyone can claim to be the new standard. Anyone with brains will look around and see truth.

What he said ^.

Look, keeping up with the times is all well and good. For instance, when it first surfaced, the word email was hyphenated: e-mail. In fact, if I remember correctly, it was also capitalized: E-mail. Now, the more commonly accepted spelling is email, though there are still those who hyphenate it. Which is fine and dandy. Just pay attention to the publication’s style guide.

But folks, as onerous as they can be at times, the standards are there for a reason. In a language that pronounces words like rough and though in markedly different ways, those standards are essential. If you can’t be understood, you’re not communicating. You’re practicing mental masturbation.

If you don’t put the comma in the right place, I might not be able to understand what you’re saying about genders in the first place.


My Veteran’s Day

I know: it sounds like a report you’d have to do in school, like the dreaded and mythological “What I Did With My Summer Vacation.” I don’t remember actually writing one of those on that subject, so this is me making up for it… sorta. Don’t worry. I’ll try to keep it from actually being boring.

I served in the Army from 1983 to 1987, with a two-year stint in the National Guard after that. It was a peaceful time to be in the service, for the most part, despite it being during the Cold War with the USSR. There were a couple scares while I was in: we invaded Grenada while I was in basic training, prompting rumors that we would not be going to AIT (Advanced Individual Training) but would ship promptly to Grenada upon graduation. Of course, that didn’t happen, and I’d largely forgotten about it by the time I made it to AIT (they keep you busy). Then, sometime later, we bombed Libya. I was stationed at Fort Polk by then, and the base went on alert, but we mostly found out about it on the news.

I was by no means an exemplary soldier. I joined to learn to be a mechanic, but what I really learned was that I have little aptitude for the job—and I don’t much like it besides. So much for that idea. I’m from Arkansas, took basic and AIT at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, and was stationed at Fort Polk, Louisiana. If you’ll look at an atlas of the US, you’ll see I never got more than a state away from my home.

So much for seeing the world.

To be fair, I did go to Germany for forty-five days in 1984 for an exercise called REFORGER, Armyspeak for Return of Forces to Germany—basically practicing for the Soviets invading Europe through the Fulda Gap. And I made two trips to Fort Irwin, California for OPFOR—Opposing Forces—training. Of a sort. We were observers. Fort Irwin and OPFOR used the tactics and vehicles of the Soviets for our units to go into mock combat against. From what I understand, OPFOR won every time. Not sure what that says about the readiness of our troops in the eighties. Probably a good thing we didn’t go to war with Russia.

I say all this to bring us to this point: because nothing special ever happened during my time in service, Veteran’s Day has never meant a lot to me on a personal level. Being a veteran, of course, I honor those who serve, but when I’m thinking of that, I’m thinking of those who saw combat, or were at least in an MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) that could put them in harm’s way at a moment’s notice.

I was a mechanic. I served my time, got out. End of story.

That changed for me this year, thanks to my wife.

I told her basically what I’ve told you above, and she responded by telling me that, until her younger brother joined the Army, there were no veterans in her family, not since a couple generations back. And when her brother joined, her mother was very opposed to it, even though it was during peacetime, because of one thing: when you join any branch of the military, you’re writing a blank check on your life, payable at any time during your service, payment to include death, if necessary.

Yeah, we’ve seen that on Facebook and other social media for years now. God knows I’ve read it often enough. But I guess the real meaning of that never sunk in. It was like, even though I signed that same blank check, because nothing happened during my tour, it didn’t really apply to me. I didn’t go to Nam, or Grenada, or Mogadishu, or Iraq. I was never in combat, never even close except for being an observer in some war games (we accidentally drove into the middle of a “battle” between tanks and helicopters one of my trips to Fort Irwin).

My wife told me that didn’t matter. What counted to her was that it could have happened. I was vaguely aware of that when I went in, of course, but was victim to that syndrome where you think it can never happen to you. Luckily, it didn’t. But it put those incidents in Grenada and Libya into a new perspective for me.

It could have been me going to Grenada. I could have been called up for something, who knows? You join during peacetime, but you never know what can happen in this world. Just ask those guys who were in those barracks in Lebanon in the early eighties. Or, more recently, the recruiters who were shot while simply standing on the sidewalk. Here in America. You shouldn’t have to worry about being shot while you’re a recruiter.

The penultimate moment for me came on Veteran’s Day itself when we visited Pea Ridge Battlefield, a site dedicated to one of the few Civil War battle sites west of the Mississippi. We were in the visitors’ center when I saw they had a DVD documentary of the battle. My wife hugged me and said to pick it or one of the books offered for sale there as a Veteran’s Day gift.

A Veteran’s Day gift? For me?

I’ll be honest: I choked up. I’m choking up a little writing about it.

I didn’t know what to say, so I finally just hugged her back and said, “Thank you.”

My wife later told me she had known plenty of guys who joined back when I did and didn’t even make it through basic training. That’s probably when I saw my service for what it was. I joined. I served. I stuck with it, even when all I wanted to do was chuck my uniforms and go home. Basic training was the worst, because I’d been raised sheltered and was suddenly thrust into an entirely different culture. I felt lost and alone. Phone calls home were a lifeline to something sane and familiar.

But I didn’t quit. What would people back home think if I did? I couldn’t allow that to happen. I’d made a promise, signed my name on the bottom of that blank check. I would fulfill my promise, cash in that check if necessary.

Thank God it never was.

Sunday and Monday, at odd moments, I kept thinking of Pea Ridge. One of the stops on the tour is Elkhorn Tavern, used by both sides as a makeshift hospital, and reading of how some Confederate troops marched overnight from a fight at the now-nonexistent Leetown to Elkhorn Tavern—a distance we covered in mere minutes in my pickup—to join the main battle. It took them ALL NIGHT to march perhaps four miles. I stood on the ground where those men fought and bled and died, all within sight of the tavern, on a cold March day in 1862. The weather was chilly, and it helped a bit to relate.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not elevating myself up with the guys who fought there, or at Normandy, or Ia Drang Valley, or Chosin Reservior, or Kuwait, or who endured the infamous Mogadishu Mile or the Bataan Death March. Or the Hanoi Hilton. Or Dachau. Or Auschwitz. Or any other battle or POW camp.

But I was made to realize that I stepped up. I served. I probably know fewer veterans than I do non-veterans. I’m not saying that as a judgment, just an observation.

I’m proud of my service. And for the first time, I feel that service was appreciated by someone very close to me for Veteran’s Day.

I’ll close by saying a big, belated thank you to all those who went into harm’s way to serve, who went farther down that trail than I did so that I can remain free.

May the sun shine on your face, the wind be at your back, and may you be in heaven long before the devil knows you’re dead.


I Lost My Wife to NaNoWriMo

I’m an NaNoWriMo widower… at least to an extent.

If you’re not familiar with NaNoWriMo—or can’t remember when I’ve talked about it before (I sympathize, believe me)—NaNoWriMo is internetspeak for National Novel Writing Month, and you can find out more about it at The simple definition is this: you write 50,000 words in a month. The aim is to write a short, completed novel, though some begin early and use that crunch to finish—or at least get close to finishing—a novel. It happens every November. The idea behind this is to get the story down on paper. Don’t edit. Don’t polish. Just write. What my wife calls word vomit.

Yes, we’re back to my wife again.

See, I got married in July to the woman I’ve spent my life looking for. Less than four months later, she’s writing a cozy mystery for NaNoWriMo. In and of itself, I love the idea, and I’m fully supportive. But as I write this, it’s November 7th, and I miss her already.

See, to achieve this goal, she has to write an average of 1,667 words a day (50,000 ÷ 30 = 1,666.66667, for you math nerds), and she has to do this in the evenings after she gets home from her day job (you know, that nasty thing we writers have to have to do things like eat food). And that means she has very little time to spend with… me.

I know: cry me a river.

Though this post is largely tongue-in-cheek, I have to be honest and reiterate that I support her fully. Way back when we reconnected (my wife and I once knew one another more years ago than I care to talk about), during the catch-up stage, I told her I was a writer and had four books published. She admitted that had been a dream of hers all her life.

See how we’re so well-matched?

But here’s the thing: she saw my writing, and that of the people I associate with, and I think it intimidated her. After that initial mention of wanting to be a writer, she didn’t bring it up again.

And that bothered me.

See, I’d read some of her Facebook posts. And thesis papers. And I knew she could write, if she’d just give herself permission to. But I had trouble convincing her of that.

I stayed patient, though, not because I’m a saint, but because every writer in history has been there: we want to write, but have no confidence in our abilities to do so. We want to be (insert name of favorite author here) right off the bat without going through whatever (favorite author) went through to get that good. It’s normal, and very human, and it’s not limited to writers and would-be writers. I’d guess every creative person is that way.

What separates the wheat from the chaff—or elevates a would-be to a writer—is the discipline to put butt in chair and write. You gotta have your chops, and while meditation is a good thing, it will never totally replace action, especially when it comes to being creative. At a certain point you simply have to do something about your dreams, rather than just dreaming them.

My wife loves cozy mysteries, and she came up with an idea for one (I refuse to share it here until she’s done with it) that I think is excellent, and it draws on her own experience, which will make it more authentic. She’s let me read most of it as she finishes each section, with the caveat that I turn my editing off, and it’s excellent, especially for someone who said she couldn’t write. I’m not much on cozies, but I know good writing when I see it, and she’s got it.

I encouraged her, so I guess I’m getting my just desserts.

But you know what? That’s okay. It’s made her happier than I’ve seen her yet, and she loves that I believe in her, and that makes it worth anything I could go through. After all, she sits in bed to write while I’m reading (how’s that for a hot time in the bedroom?), so we’re still spending time together, and it doesn’t get much better than that.

Only twenty-three more days to go…


Culture Shock

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m a country boy. I’ve been some places—Germany always comes immediately to mind when I say that, but that was waaaay back in 1984.

Yes, I’m that old.

As I write this, though, I’m nearing the end of my fourth trip (if I’m counting right) to LA. More specifically, to Santa Monica. Just off Wilshire Boulevard. Not far from the ocean. And the Pier.

Not exactly the Ozark Mountains of Northwest Arkansas. Hell, I’ve only seen one Walmart the whole time I’ve been out there, and that was over an hour away.

All the other times I’ve come out here, I’ve been limited on what I saw. Stuck mostly with whatever I could see within walking distance—and careful with where I went since I have no idea when or if I’ve wandered into a bad neighborhood—I’ve pretty much seen the same things: the Santa Monica Pier, the chaos that is LAX, a very limited stretch of the PCH, and the famous Third Street Promenade. Not a lot to write home about.

But this time I came out for my daughter’s wedding, and because her husband is from Simi Valley, that’s where they decided to have the wedding. It was in a very nice place called Rancho Simi Park, not far off the 118 Freeway. We took the 405 north through what I think was the Sepulveda Pass into Simi Valley, two different trips, one for the rehearsal, one for the wedding itself. Got to see some of that famous freeway gridlock Southern California is known for.

And some high desert. With lots of rocks. And scrub.

I think it’s beautiful, but not everyone does. To each their own. I fell in love with the desert way back in 1985 when I was in the Army and made two trips to Fort Irwin, right smack in the middle of the Mojave Desert, thirty miles south of Death Valley. Much more barren than the desert I’ve seen the last few days.

If it were only the landscape, that wouldn’t be a big deal. But there’s LA. Los Angeles. There are so many cultures here. According to Google, there’s 224 languages spoken here. I have a hard time wrapping my head around that fact. I mean, who’da thunk?

People, people everywhere, and not a break from them in sight. Wanna escape? You’ll need to drive at least an hour to get to the desert.

Of course, that’s one of the things about this area. You can go to the desert, the beach, or the mountains, and most of it is within a couple hours’ drive. If you’re feeling really adventurous, you can head up the coast to San Francisco. Or keep going north to Northern California and see redwoods and Yosemite (something I’d love to do).

But down here? As my wife says, it’s too peopley.

I like the area, and the climate is great, especially if you’re closer to the ocean. The inland canyons and high desert can get hotter than Hades in the summer, and as much as I love the look of the desert, I don’t wanna live there. Are you crazy? No thanks. I spent one August in those triple-digit temperatures, and I ain’t doin’ it again.

I’m writing this on Thursday the 2nd, and I’m set to fly back on Friday the 3rd. So by the time you read this, I’ll be home, back to fall temperatures and—probably—bare trees. My daughter is honeymooning at Disneyland as I write this, and I wish her all the luck and love in the world with her marriage. I hope she comes to visit me again (she was at my wedding this past July), and I’m sure I’ll come back out to see everyone.

But as far as living out here? No thanks. Gas across the street was $3.45 for the cheapest stuff, the California legislature having voted in a twelve-cent gas-tax hike that went into effect Wednesday. Helicopters fly overhead on a regular basis, and let’s not forget all the sirens that are like the city’s theme song.

And the homeless begging money and sleeping under overpasses.

The miles and miles of eight-lane freeways with miles and miles of backed-up traffic.

The millions of people.

You can’t find a moment’s peace. Can’t enjoy a sunset in solitude. Hell, you can’t have solitude period.

Yeah, I’m a country boy, and I’m gonna stay that way. It’s where I’m happiest.